You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
~ “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems
How can our hearts be anything but broken? How can we possibly hope to make sense of our country’s most recent brutal, obscene school shooting? How can we make it through the day without weeping? How long, o Lord will this senseless sin continue?
Driving home from work last night, I couldn’t quit crying. All I could think about was how scared everyone must have been. I grieved the reality of today’s school kids and how much life has changed since I was their age. I wept for how many places, we seem to have lost our way. For God’s sake. For the sake of our children.
It was a heavy day. Grey and long. When I got in the car, I called and spoke with the folks who work for our Senators. My tears started there and just kept coming..
This had certainly been an unimaginable start to Lent. Surely this feels like the most barren of wilderness places. Deserted. Lifeless. Endless. Wandering. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. Especially in the desert you can’t stop walking. Especially in the desert, you can’t give up. If you do, you will die. Left foot, right foot. We step out in faith, searching on up ahead for some kind of sign. Searching for some signal that reassures us and provides some kind of hope.
I heard them before I saw them. That’s one of their gifts. Their honking song. And then I saw them. There must have been over a hundred. There they were in all their glory- an amazing flock of geese heading north, heading home.
Geese seem understand Mary Oliver's notion of `the family of things..' They get from there to here and beyond by moving as one. We’re told that each bird flies a little bit above the one in front of them, to help shield the next one from the wind. They don’t have one leader to guide them home. Each takes their turn. One in the front, at the point of the "V" for a time and when she grows weary, the next one senses it and he flies forward to take her place. They don’t break ranks, they don’t break rhythm. They just keep going. Together. Interdependent. Stronger for sure. Wiser than most of us on the ground - absolutely.
In these weary, desperately grieving February days we could all stand to pay attention to all our teachers - especially these feathered friends. In these days when we sense we have lost our way, let us dig deeper to try to reclaim, rename balance. It’s not insiders/outsiders, not powerful/powerless. It’s us, all of us. Especially today as I pulled over and stopped to watch, I was reminded of this age-old truth: it’s gonna take all of us if we’re gonna make it home.
Mary Oliver’s words bring me inspiration and hope - there is a place that holds us. Each one. If we live into the part we play in `announcing our place in the family of things,’ we might have the courage enough to step out and step up. And who knows, maybe we can even fly.
“In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong and unmended in the world.
Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what’s outside your reach,
by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that
is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion
of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause
the critical mass to tip toward enduring good.”
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Some of us may consider ourselves “Institutional Pilgrims.” We’ve done this season of Lent before, some of us would say that we’ve done this Lenten journey our whole lives. We have walked this lonesome valley, we’ve prayed these prayers, we’ve practiced these rituals. Some would even venture to say “we know how this turns out four or five weeks from now.” But, what if we haven’t? Seriously, what if we haven’t done this before?
We are living in a time that most of us could never have dreamed of. Day in and day out we are living with a new normal that is anything but normal, and living through days that feel flat out wrong. Our faith in our institutions is crumbling before our eyes. For those of us still able to watch or listen to the news, there seems to be little hope on the horizon. These are mean-spirited times for us, especially if you are one or if you care about someone who is living outside on the margins. Our children are speaking to power in ways that feel new and tender / strong. It is here that we find our wandering spirits.
What brings you to these mending days? Are you continuing to engage with your sisters and brothers? Are you continuing to practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty? Are you continuing to work toward the best of who we are created to be? Are you continuing to live into the spirit of the gospel’s message?
What, then is to be our focus? For our sister, Clarissa it begins with our naming - each one of us naming and claiming the fact that we are needed. There is heavy lifting to be done all around us and there is no time like the present. Here, as we move in and through these wilderness days, may we take Clarrisa’s words to heart. May we commit to being about the work of mending. May we commit to focusing on the hurting ones and the broken places that are within our reach. Small acts. Kind words. Beauty re-claimed. Left foot, right foot.
It matters like it’s never mattered before. We are, each one of us called to go out in joy with purpose and with focus. We are seeking peace - for all of us, for each of us. Each day. This day.
From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return. (Gen 3:19)
With ashes on our foreheads, and these words of our mortality sounding in our hearts, we begin our Lenten journey. Left foot, right foot.
These words spoken to generations of pilgrims before us give us pause each time heard. From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return. These words, though familiar, speak to the core of our mortality, our finiteness. With these words as our beginning place, we set out for forty days into the wilderness. What is it this year you are seeking?
And so hearing these words as a cross is traced across our foreheads we set out. Left foot, right foot.
These words of returning to dust, can certainly get our attention. These words of our mortality bring to the forefront that our time on this earth is limited. We were not created to live forever. Our bodies are precious and vulnerable vessels meant for a time, not all time. We are pilgrims traveling through. These words aren’t shared for us to be fearful of an ending, but to mindful of this present moment. We are here. Now. This is our time for choosing to participate - in this season, in this moment. Now.
This can be our season of turning and returning. It can be our time of reflection and intention. It can be our time of claiming and reclaiming our yearning for deep connection. It can be as simple and as difficult as paying attention to our life’s path. The differences between a path into a maze or onto a labyrinth are subtle, but by paying attention we can recognize the differences. By paying attention we can come to understand where we are and where we are going. At times our path can feel fearful, like walking into a maze’s entanglement, or other times like the peaceful, purposeful walking onto a labyrinth. These coming days can be our season of lighting a candle and stepping out - left foot, right foot.
Readings for this day come also from Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
With these words as well we set out on this time of pilgrimage. With these words we set out seeking something new, something right within us that is waiting. With these words we set out to follow our life path, strengthened by God’s steadfast love for us, each one. Not because we must, but because we may.
If you’ve ever walked a labyrinth you’ll know that these words (about labyrinth-walking and often about life) are true: What we think we know at the beginning of a journey, are often changed by what we discover along the way. Likewise, what we think we know at the beginning may turn out not be nearly as important as we originally believed. Labyrinth-walking continually shifts, unsettles and then re-settles our questions and quandaries. Time and time again, I have been gifted with grace.
Grace found me again as I was preparing for this year’s Lent.
The weight of the world companioned me on my recent journey into the labyrinth. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot. There is something about the turns and returns of her path, that faithfully seemed to jostle my mind and my spirit. I felt a gentle presence of a new companion and along the way, this sense grew more sure and steady. And then I understood - I felt peace. When I stood in the center and looked to the sky, I felt relieved. Maybe it’s the steps, maybe it’s the continuing on when I really wasn’t sure how the next turn would get me where I intended to go, maybe it was God’s lovingkindness, but as I turned and began to make my way back I experienced a deep, reassuring peace. And when I turned to make my way back out, I understood the words for me for this Lenten season: "For you will go out in joy, and come back with peace,” from Isaiah 55.
There are times and practices for fasting and prayer, for alms giving in this Lenten season. Their purpose is to slow us down, to call us back, to return us to God. This journey promises to take us into and through the wilderness. It is my intention to step out on this journey with joy, with God’s promise that I will return back in peace. It is with a mortal and vulnerable heart that I begin this season carrying with me the hope of shalom, salam, paz, mir, pyeonghwa, vrede. Always with us is God’s lovingkindness for us. As we set out into this Lenten season, may we prayerfully seek what is to come.
This Lent it is my intention to provide something three days a week.
On Wednesdays it will be `Lenten words,' on Fridays poems,
and on Sundays reflections on the Psalms of the day.
Working in Family Experience at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Lesley is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner, Linda Ellis are raising their two sons, Brogan (now a freshman at Guilford College) and Sam at sophomore at DHS in Decatur, GA.